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TV review: The Trick, and Impeachment: American crime story

29 October 2021


The University of East Anglia climatic research unit, where Dr Phil Jones, the subject of The Trick (BBC1, Monday of last week), worked as a climate-change scientist

The University of East Anglia climatic research unit, where Dr Phil Jones, the subject of The Trick (BBC1, Monday of last week), worked as a climate-c...

DRAMAS about lost reputations dominated this week’s television. In The Trick (BBC1, Monday of last week), Jason Watkins played Dr Phil Jones, the climate-change scientist whose credibility was challenged in 2009 through hacked emails. And, as The Trick went to great pains to point out, it was not just Dr Jones’s work that was in jeopardy, but belief in climate change, and, by extension, the future of mankind.

Despite the salience of its subject, and the thoroughbred performances of Watkins, and Victoria Hamilton as Ruth Jones, the scientist’s wife, the drama was immobilised by leaden dialogue. And chopping the timeframe with “3 months earlier” captions added no narrative tension, because everything looked the same audio-visual sludge. This was especially true of the final scene, set in the present, where the only clue that more than a decade had elapsed since the main action was a stuck-on receding hairline for Watkins and a re-usable coffee-cup prop.

Impeachment: American crime story (BBC2, Tuesday of last week) had many of the same ingredients as The Trick: a true story about a publicly shamed character, and a narrative that circled around the 1998 revelation of President Clinton’s relationship with the 22-year-old intern Monica Lewinsky. But the attention to period detail was immaculate, from pagers and payphones to electronic music blasting out in aerobics classes. Beanie Feldstein imbues Lewinsky with naïvety, impulsivity, and the entitlement of a privileged upbringing. And Sarah Paulson’s Linda Tripp is a swirling mix of spite and menacing physicality.

Paulson’s portrayal also elicited sympathy. Worried about her weight, Tripp blends Slim Fast for breakfast for her 5.30-a.m. start at the West Wing. In her own mind she is a White House linchpin, a delusion excruciatingly dispelled in job interview, where her career-highlight name-dropping is met with blank looks. Tripp’s turning-point workplace humiliation is being told by the well-connected volunteer who takes her job: “The President has no idea who you are.” Enraged, Tripp charges towards her usurper, spitting in her face “I will get you for this.”

As we have known from the pre-credits sequence, the colleague whom Tripp goes on to get is Lewinsky, but this knowledge makes the handling of the narrative by the series even more enjoyable. Instead of centring on a libidinous president, Impeachment tilts the axis of the story to an overlooked, mid-life employee seeking what she believes is her due, and the guileless young woman who crosses her path.

Impeachment’s ability to bring to life the wider context of the Clinton era, and the potential for Clinton’s personal life to be used as a political weapon, is what sets it apart from other dramas “based on real life”. And its telling depiction of work and power provides plentiful insights into real life as experienced by working adults the world over.

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